Credit: UC Davis

Determined to find a better test that would allow women to detect breast cancer earlier and without the risks and cost of mammograms, two UC Davis graduates focused their attention on using urine.

A new test for invasive breast cancer has been developed by Angela Courtney, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of California, Davis. Courtney received her Ph.D. in integrative pathobiology from UC Davis in 2015, shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer herself.

Determined to find a test that would allow women to detect breast cancer earlier and without the risks and cost of mammograms, Courtney focused on leveraging the body’s natural filtration system. The result was the identification of a pattern of protein and genomic material present in urine that could be used to indicate the presence of breast cancer.

“Urine is essentially filtered plasma from which the kidneys have extracted harmful biological materials and waste,” said Courtney. “We take advantage of this natural process and look for the protein and genomic material that is excreted.”

UC Davis alumni Angela Courtney and Michael Gilson
Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Together with Michael Gilson, a UC Davis alumnus, she founded Adrastia Biotech in 2015 and began work to develop a commercial platform for a simple urine test that could distinguish a patient with breast cancer from one without. The test uses protein and RNA genomic targets that are present in urine.

In addition to the comparison to a standard positive or negative pattern, over time the woman’s own individual pattern could deliver information about the progress of the cancer and success of treatment — delivering truly personalized medicine.

“The goal is not to replace mammography, but to provide an inexpensive method without the risks of radiation that can be used more regularly to detect breast cancer in the early stages,” Gilson said. In addition, it may offer particular advantages to women with dense breasts whose mammograms are inconclusive, as well as an alternative to mammography for women at high risk who are considering a double mastectomy.

Adrastia is designing their test with the intent that it could be used as part of routine screenings in physicians’ offices, women’s health centers and even remote villages around the world.

The team was awarded the Blum Center Prize for Big Ideas Promoting Social Change as part of the Big Bang business plan competition at UC Davis in 2014.